Sérgio Fernandez: In the 50’s, some of the best Portuguese architects, including Fernando Távora, became involved in studying and documenting local vernacular architecture. A countrywide inquiry of impressive scale was organised to understand the logic and qualities of popular buildings. Even though the architects were fascinated by Le Corbusier and the international style, they realised that making a link with the traditions of our country was crucial to going forward. We lived for 48 years under a dictatorship that tried to ban any form of modern ideas. If something appeared modern, it simply would not get approved by the authorities. We needed to fight for it and manage to find ways to build.
Despite difficulties, the young generation was trying to introduce new qualities and continued to think critically. The house in Ofir became one of the first expressions of the emerging movement - it embodied the ambition to make modern architecture, whilst at the same time remaining tightly linked to our heritage and to our culture.
Although the house looks relatively traditional, it is very modern. The general organisation of the house is extremely clear: one part is dedicated to services; another hosts the living part and the last contains the sleeping areas. Traditional houses never had such a scheme - three completely distinct and architecturally articulated zones never appeared in vernacular buildings.
It is important to underline that in classically modern architecture the three parts of the house would be perpendicular to each other, here on the contrary you find a subtle torsion, which opens the house unexpectedly to the landscape around. It is a sign that Távora’s architecture is not a rigid application of a dogma. The House in Ofir is made to stress the openness to its surroundings, not to follow a language. Távora wanted to create an interior space completely linked to the exterior and give the impression of being in between the pinewood trees, through which you would see the river.
In the living room, there is a very big window, held by a concrete beam. It connects the main space with the garden. Besides this, in order to pass from one area to the other, you have to cross the outdoor entrance space. It clearly emphasises the character of a summerhouse, a typology that first became popular in the modern culture. The windows in the rooms are similar to the traditional ones, but Távora drew them bigger than you would normally expect. Again, they subtly match the traditional shapes with a modern scale.
Before construction, the land was completely flat. Távora made a little hill to enclose the space of the garden. Its main point is symbolised by a concrete fountain. The idea to connect the house with the site was interesting, but he went much further in modifying the natural topography to emphasise the spatiality. It was a very new attitude for us. It’s fantastic when you are there in this garden. You feel as if you were in a very generous, outdoor sitting room. For me, the scale is the most important aspect of this house.
DO YOU THINK THIS TRADITIONAL LOOK ACTED AS CAMOUFLAGE - DURING A TIME WHEN IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO BUILD MODERN HOUSES THAT LOOKED LIKE MODERN HOUSES?
No, the idea of the roofs was Távora’s recognition of the need to make a house in which one felt at home. It was a research in intimacy. The inclined roofs help to emphasise a cozy character of the interior. When you are inside, it gives a special scale which is very familiar to us. Even though I have never slept in this house, each time I arrive there, I instantly feel very comfortable.
WHEN IT COMES TO MATERIALS, VERY SPECIFIC ELEMENTS ARE UNDERLINED WITH COLOUR, DOES IT COME FROM TRADITION, OR WAS TÁVORA TRYING TO GIVE SOME HINTS THROUGH MATERIALS AND COLOURS?
The house is mainly white, the interior surfaces are painted stone, while the most evident sign of the relationship with traditional architecture - the chimney - is coloured. I think that Távora was very free in these choices. When he put colour on the big chimney, which in traditional architecture was usually not painted, it was a way to say: „We are here. This is our fireplace, our home”. It’s on a slightly higher level, which in winter emphasises the necessity of being enclosed and together, opposite to moving in all directions during the summer. The colour might have been used to underline contrasts or make the message clearer.
TÁVORA WAS THE ARCHITECTURAL FATHER TO MANY IMPORTANT DESIGNER'S: WHAT WAS HIS MAIN CONTRIBUTION TO THE FOLLOWING GENERATION OF ARCHITECTS?
Tavora was my beloved teacher and mentor. As a student, he even took me to the last CIAM. I met all the authors of my books, it was fantastic. Especially, Ernesto Nathan Rogers - he was a very kind man, very similar to Távora. He was always saying that it was very important to assimilate information and sensations, something which cannot be taught and only comes naturally in life. At that time, it made an important impression on me.
Well, I should say that the architectural production of Távora is great but is not the main thing about him. His most important qualities were the simplicity and complexity that he applied to whatever kind of activity he was involved in. I travelled many times with him to Egypt, Greece, etc. He looked at things in a very intense way and it was fascinating to observe.
I remember for example that we stopped at so many ruins in Greece that at some point we said: „From now on, we won’t stop at ruins that are lower than 20cm!” (laughing). We spent an entire night in front of the Parthenon, from afternoon to the next morning speaking about it. It was a real love for architecture, not for the effects of architecture.
I am becoming old, maybe I am already old, so sometimes I am sceptical towards the new. I see many things that, if we „squeezed” them, there would be nothing left.
ARE YOUNG ARCHITECTS IN PORTUGAL STILL CULTIVATING TÁVORA'S HERITAGE?
I am 83, so I am not much involved anymore, but I still have intense contact with students. I believe that there are very good young people around. There is naturally a question about the influence of commercial pressures that we can’t ignore. However, I always think that young people are better than us. I also think I was better than my ancestors (laughing)! We are improving, I believe so.
It’s fantastic to look at how students react when they come and see my house or Távora’s or Siza’s. They recognise their subtle qualities, and they get enthusiastic about it. They can see the value of this kind of architecture. I believe the future is going to be very very bright! I say the future because the present is very bad, even worse with face masks (laughing)!
WHAT WOULD BE THE MAIN LESSON OF THIS HOUSE FOR TODAY'S ARCHITECTURE?
We are in a very difficult moment now. Today we are used to graphic effects rather than living effects. As far as I am concerned, it is so much more important to be able to live in a space than to publish photos of it. I would say the house in Ofir gives a lesson in humbleness. The most important is that the people living there are comfortable and happy. When I was teaching in the faculty of Porto, we visited this house with the students every year to show them that thinking in terms of daily activities and pleasures makes a real difference.
Usually, I say that houses that are not good for normal living are probably for geniuses. Mies’ Farnsworth House is one of the most important pieces of architecture to me, but we all know it’s very difficult to live there. We as architects, must do our very best to be real, especially when designing a house. Sometimes you can do extreme things like Farnsworth House, which is exactly the opposite of the house by Tavora. However, it needs to remain an exception, it’s not a recipe that we should use.